Question: Some Christian friends say they don’t visit Buddhist temples (and other ones Hindu, Taoist…) as they believe there are idols with spirits in them, that they don’t feel good going there. I have even heard of a Mother telling her young child, when passing a temple, that it is a house of ‘the devil’. How should I reply to this?
Answer: Buddhist images (statues and paintings of enlightened beings) are but symbols; albeit significant ones. Christian culture has symbols like the cross and Jesus nailed to it too (which represents much suffering, while Buddha and Bodhisattva images represent perfect peace, compassion and wisdom). Buddhist images are not worshipped as idols but are effective and powerful reminders of virtues to emulate and cultivate.
Well crafted images are so universally aesthetically pleasing to most that even many non-Buddhists use such images for home decoration. If they contain evil spirits, they wouldn’t be so popular. The Buddha image happens to be the most reproduced and creatively re-interpreted in the world. Also, as images in temples are consecrated formally, it is further assured that spirits will not reside in them, though the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can inspire us through the images. Unseen Dharma protector gods might be around to protect the images and those who respect them too.